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Life With A Scared Dog

Sally Gutteridge
If you live with a fearful dog it can be easy to assume that your dog is always scared, leaving you feeling that you can’t possibly tackle all those problems and a case of strong overwhelm. Like every problem though, this can be broken down into careful understanding and every problem in smaller chunks looks far less overpowering. To fully understand where fear like behaviour fits into your dog’s personality, lets define a couple of terms.

Fear is an emotional response to something (which the dog sees as danger) in the environment. Fear occurs at the moment the scary thing appears and starts to reverse when the dog is no longer exposed to it. A trigger of fear can pass through any of the senses, for example fear of sound can occur even if nothing in the visual environment changes. Fear usually occurs to a sensory trigger. Extreme fearfulness in dogs is quite rare, but it does exist – it means that the dog gets very scared of anything that may be in the environment at any time and is distressing to see.

Anxiety is different to fear. The anxious dog doesn’t need to be in the presence of a trigger to experience anxiety because anxiety is the expectation of danger. This means a dog can be anxious all the time, because he is expecting something bad to happen.

Stress is the physiological response to fear and/or anxiety. The stress response begins as a response to danger, whether real or perceived by the dog. When the body responds to stress, it is readying the dog to take flight. This is the first choice and the dog’s whole body is trying to run away in response to his mind shouting about the imminent threat. If flight isn’t possible (for example if the dog is on a lead – or has learned that he can’t run away from scary things) he might show a fight response (barking and looking big enough to scare the threat away) If he’s learned that neither of the previous two work – the dog might show emotional shut-down as a response to stress (freeze/hope the threat passes quickly or take what’s coming and hope he survives)

If you feel like your dog is scared of everything, it’s worth considering the points above and asking yourself if he does show the same fear behaviour all the time, or whether it ebbs and flows. The stress response is interesting because it goes fast forward in the presence of danger, but then when the danger is gone it regulates, rebalances and goes into reverse. Whether scared or recovering, the way your dog feels will be shown in will be shown in his behaviour. Signs of stress will increase when he is in fast forward to fear – such as lip licking, yawing, looking away, his hackles might go up and his body language will change growling. When it goes into reverse these things will slow down and eventually stop.

By watching carefully, you will be able to see small incremental changes in your dog’s body language, which will tell you what in the environment is causing his emotional response, and if no change is apparent, your dog could be suffering from anxiety. (Your vet might be able to help with that) Knowledge is power, when you begin to use (what I like to call) enlightened observation you will see your scared dog’s behaviour much more clearly, it will appear like the communication it is. Clarity will give you the power to offer the right kind of help to your dog, and assist him kindly to work through his fears and rebalance in what he could see as a very scary world.

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